Last night, over 22,000 children slept in New York City Department of Homeless Services homeless shelters. While the city is finally starting to see a downward trend in the number of homeless families with children, efforts to address the well-being of these families and secure permanent affordable housing cannot come soon enough.
New recommendations released this week based on the work of a “Family Homelessness Task Force” of more than 40 organizations stress the importance of a three-pronged approach to addressing family homelessness: support families in shelter to ensure their well-being and access to school and community supports; provide resources once they leave shelter to ensure they never become homeless again; and develop programs that identify and help vulnerable families before housing stability ever becomes a crisis.
Homeless families with children compose almost 70 percent of New York City’s shelter users. On average, they remain in the shelter system for more than 430 days. Half of these families are living in cluster sites—often ill-maintained private apartments the city rents—and hotels far from their schools, communities, jobs and family members. Such long stays can put lives on hold, causing parents to lose jobs and children to miss school, which can harm a family’s well-being and impact long-term life outcomes. On top of this, the status quo is economically unsustainable: the city spends an average of $41,000 per year for every homeless family living in shelter, and even more when families are placed in hotels.
The state and the city have done significant work to create programs that address family homelessness. Access to representation in housing court for all low-income New Yorkers, the increase in the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement rental subsidy, and the expansion of HomeBase, the city’s evidence-based model for homelessness prevention, all help children and their families remain in their homes.
New rental assistance programs such as the city’s Living in Communities initiative—which transitions families out of shelters into permanent housing—and commitments from Albany and City Hall to build more supportive and affordable housing will help families obtain and retain permanent housing. The city’s newest homeless plan seeks to create service-rich family shelters and eliminate cluster sites and hotels.
Despite these efforts, New York City still lacks a coordinated housing and homelessness plan that makes full use of the considerable resources government agencies, nonprofit advocates, and service providers can offer if they work together.
A coordinated approach has worked before: just a few years ago, veteran homelessness was a major crisis in New York and across the country. A neglect of those who risked their lives for their country caused the number of homeless veterans in New York City alone to skyrocket to nearly 3,700 by 2009.
A unified and targeted effort helped the city cut that number by two-thirds by placing more than 3,000 veterans into permanent housing over three years. Its success prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to chronic veteran homelessness in New York City in December 2015.
In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio established the Department of Veterans’ Services to continue to support and manage the city’s homeless veteran population, helping to ensure that chronic veteran homelessness never returns to New York City.
New York State, New York City, service providers, housing developers, landlords and advocates need to apply this type of approach to family homelessness so that one day soon, no child is ever homeless again. We can do that by taking seriously the recommendations that are based on the work of the Family Homelessness Task Force and by recognizing that family homelessness is not something that any one entity can solve on its own.
We urge the city to lead this effort. The next generation of New Yorkers is depending on all of us to make them a priority by ensuring they have safe and stable homes and access to the resources they need to thrive.
Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners. Jennifer March, Ph.D. is executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. Carol Corden is executive director of New Destiny Housing. The three organizations are the co-conveners of the Family Homelessness Task Force.